Daniel Chirot
How Societies Change

In towns there was an incipient capitalist culture, but to explain why it became so powerful in Europe and not elsewhere requires more than simple awareness of the interests of merchants and manufacturers. If this new culture had remained simply that of urban merchants and had not led to a profound revolution in all aspects of thought, it would not have transformed the world.

Here we see the essence of cultural change and why it deviates from both biological change and the simplistic concepts of purely materialist thinkers. An idea may be so strong, so appealing, so illuminating, that it acquires a power of its own. Once it spreads, it will change societies, sometimes even overriding their material interests.

During the period of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, the systematic exploration of social and historical issues produced a startlingly new idea: that commerce and the pursuit of profit for its own sake was a morally valuable activity and could benefit society as a whole. No doubt, such a notion would not have gained much ground except in societies where commerce was of growing importance. But the idea that commercial activity was somehow morally good was so much at odds with the morality of all past agrarian societies that it reinforced and legitimized commercial pursuits in a way that had never been possible before. This strand of thinking, which was never fully accepted by all of Europe's thinkers, much less by all of its people, nevertheless proved convincing enough to provide a philosophical justification for expanding capitalism.

In older agrarian societies, except in a few merchant cities like Venice, some Muslim trading cities in Southeast Asia, and the ancient Phoenician ports, commerce was associated with greed and corruption. True honor went to fighting men, such as European knights or Japanese samurai, to otherworldly saints who escaped human turmoil, such as Hindu holy men or Buddhist monks, or to upright and loyal bureaucrats, such as the Confucian elite in China. For those who could not be part of the elite, the only honest occupation was agriculture, so that even if merchants were richer than poor peasants, they were considered a lower form of life. This almost instinctive reaction against commerce helped to preserve agrarian societies. It kept land from being sold and so maintained the solidarity of village communities. It prevented the more clever and enterprising commoners from getting ahead. It kept nobles and churchmen in power. In short, it kept the whole moral and political structure of agrarian societies intact. These societies recognized a very long time ago that giving free reign to entrepreneurship and the power of profit would be seriously disrupted because that rewarded innovation.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.